Could I Be Addicted To Exercise?

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The importance of getting regular exercise is one of the earliest healthy habits we’re taught. Even so, the excessive need to exercise or the unwillingness to skip a day at the gym can lead to unhealthy circumstances. If an individual refuses to rest after an injury, resulting in increased pain or a delay in their recovery, their drive to exercise may be becoming a dangerous addiction. 

Defining Exercise Addiction

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) now identifies exercise addiction as a form of behavioral addiction. Its definition compares the criteria for exercise addiction to those listed for substance dependence:

  • Tolerance: increasing amounts of exercise needed to feel the desired effect
  • Withdrawal: experiencing negative effects in the absence of exercise
  • Lack of control: inability to reduce exercise level, even when so desired
  • Intention effects: unable to stick to a normal routine due to the inordinate amount of time devoted to exercise, or consistently spending more time on it than originally planned
  • Time: an excessive amount of time is spent preparing for, engaging in, and recovering from exercise
  • Reduction in other activities: a person’s social, occupational, and/or recreational activities occur less often or are entirely stopped due to exercising
  • Continuance: continuing to exercise even though the activity is causing physical, psychological, and/or interpersonal problems

Characteristics Of Exercise Addiction

Through a survey conducted by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), data suggests that roughly 3 percent of people who exercise regularly are struggling with exercise addiction. Many people who exercise start with good intentions to improve their health, both physically and mentally. Due to the release of endorphins that a person experiences when they exercise, some become dependent on the continued positive feeling that comes with it, and may even begin to experience negative psychological and physical consequences from missing just one day. A person can start to suffer from depression, experience an increase in tension and aggression, and develop consistent fatigue.  

When this healthy habit turns unhealthy, it becomes a maladaptive behavior. This means that instead of it improving a person’s well-being, it creates more problems. The addiction starts to threaten an individual’s overall health and can result in injuries, long-term damage to the body due to inadequate rest, malnutrition, and other problems. 

As A Co-Occurring Disorder

Exercise addiction has been linked to other disorders like anorexia and bulimia. It is estimated that approximately 39-48 percent of people who struggle with an eating disorder also suffer from some form of exercise addiction and that eating disorders are the most common disorder to co-occur with exercise addiction.

The NCBI also estimates that 15-20 percent of exercise addicted individuals also struggle with addictions to nicotine, alcohol, or illicit drugs. Research suggests that some athletes who wish to improve their overall performance start using stimulants such as amphetamines, and soon become substance-addicted.   

Healthy Habits vs. Unhealthy Compulsions

There is no doubt that exercise is a healthy behavior that can greatly benefit the human body and mind. Like with any practice you develop, it’s important to make sure you’re able to identify when this healthy habit becomes unhealthy. The Northwestern Family Institute has created a chart that identifies the progression from a healthy habit to an unhealthy exercise compulsion:

  1. Healthy exercise is motivated by the desire to increase a person’s overall health. The behavior adds positivity to one’s life and does not create excess stress.
  2. At-risk exercise is used to help reduce anxiety or other mood disorders, or as an outlet for negative thoughts or emotions.
  3. Problematic Exercise creates negative consequences such as injuries, exhaustion, or mismanaged time. Individuals will start to schedule their days around their workout.
  4. Exercise Addiction is a means to avoid guilt and anxiety. A person will persist through a workout regardless of injuries or exhaustion. The behavior interferes with their everyday life. 

People with exercise addictions can feel strongly that exercise is the most important thing in their life. Excessive exercise may cause conflicts with their families, friends, or employers. Regardless of the negative effects that their relationship with exercise may cause, they refuse to give up the maladaptive behavior. This suggests that the central function of exercise addiction is providing a sense of control. Through exercise, a person may feel control over their mood, their body, and the world around them. 

Strategies For Eliminating Unhealthy Exercise Behaviors

One of the most common ways that people maintain healthy behaviors is by setting realistic fitness goals for themselves. It isn’t feasible, for example, to try to lose 20 pounds in two weeks. Create goals that you can achieve. Ask for assistance from a certified personal trainer who can help you with exercise routines and meal ideas, while also providing you with accountability. Be honest with your trainer when you are feeling overwhelmed with the exercise regimen, and come up with a plan that maintains a healthy relationship between yourself and the gym. Contacting other health professionals such as nutritionists can help you be educated about healthy eating habits and the effects of what we put into our bodies. 

Exercising comes with benefits for a person’s mind, body, and soul. It relieves stress and anxiety, can give a person better focus and can decrease heart disease. However, exercising can also become maladaptive behavior. It can transform into an addiction that takes over your life and causes you pain and suffering. You shouldn’t have to suffer from your workout or be struck by negative consequences if you decide to skip a gym day. Exercise can turn into an addiction especially for those struggling with an eating disorder. It is important to understand how exercise can be linked to other disorders, causing you to struggle with co-occurring disorders which will eventually require care from a recovery professional. If you feel like you might be forming an unhealthy relationship with exercise, you may need professional help. Reach out to Everlast Recovery Centers to find the right assistance for you. Call today at 866-DETOX-25

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